Gerson: The cycle of dehumanization
"A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. ... Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. ... These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method."
WASHINGTON – These words were written, not in 1943, but in 2013. They are from an article by Zsolt Bayer, one of the founders of Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, and a friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Bayer's attitude toward the Roma (Gypsies) is part of a broader theory that big corporations, leftists, Jews and Muslim migrants are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine Hungarian identity. "There are all kinds of weapons: traditional, chemical, atomic," Bayer argues. "And now we see that there are also racial weapons. This is the weapon that they, the 'invisible hands,' have employed against Europe and against the white race."
Orban is not quite so blunt, but he seems more than willing to gather the political benefit of ethno-nationalism. "We, the Hungarians of national solidarity," he has said, "must squeeze all disunity out of Hungarian life."
Hostility to outsiders, of course, pre-existed the political movement taking advantage of it. But what role does leadership play in encouraging this attitude? This has been a topic of recent research by Emile Bruneau of the University of Pennsylvania and Nour Kteily of Northwestern University. They have devised an appropriately offensive scale on which to measure blatant dehumanization. In September 2014, a representative sample of Hungarians was asked to place Muslim migrants somewhere on the familiar "ascent of man" scientific illustration — the one showing the gradual development from monkey to Homo sapiens. The same survey was done in October 2015. In a little over a year, the level of blatant dehumanization in Hungary doubled.
There are a number of possible explanations. But Bruneau postulates that political rhetoric played a role. "When people see this as normative," he told me, "they are more likely to express themselves."
Bruneau has also studied the disturbing neuroscience of bigotry. One might expect dehumanization to light up emotional, pre-rational parts of the limbic system. Instead, he says, "it is deeply seated in the cortex, in a reasoned cognitive response." Viewing others as less than human involves a very conscious and deliberate decision.
"Dehumanization," argues Bruneau, "morally disengages us." Most humans hold to a morality that forbids harm to other humans. But if someone is regarded as less than human, those moral rules no longer apply. This rationalization is what allows people who commit genocide to go home, kiss their children and sleep at night. It is also what leads Bayer to say: "Whoever runs over a Gypsy child is acting correctly if he gives no thought to stopping and steps hard on the accelerator."
How does this relate to U.S. politics? In a survey of Americans conducted by Bruneau and Kteily, the dehumanization of Muslims (as you'd expect) was a strong predictor of support for policies such as carpet bombing in the Middle East or denying visas to Muslims. "Conservatism does predict some support for these positions," says Bruneau, "but dehumanization goes above and beyond this. It is more strongly predictive than political ideology."
Blatant dehumanization was also more strongly correlated with support for Donald Trump than for any other candidate.
If political leadership can increase dehumanization — as the evidence seems to indicate — Trump is guilty of it. He has falsely asserted that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims cheered after the World Trade Center came down and that Syrian refugees are entering America with "cellphones with ISIS flags on them." He has called for a ban on Muslim migration and the establishment of a database to track Muslims in the U.S. "I want surveillance of these people," Trump has said. And: "We're going to have to do things that we never did before."
Trump has turned legitimate concerns about terrorism into the indictment of a religion. In his rhetoric, the distinction between "these people" and the American "we" is clear enough. But there is a problem, other than the obvious ethical one. Bruneau and Kteily also surveyed Muslim Americans. And the more they feel dehumanized, the less likely they are to report activities that might be related to radicalization.
This is a vicious and dangerous cycle: Dehumanizing rhetoric, leading to distrust of government and law enforcement, contributing to tragedies that feed dehumanizing rhetoric. Both our ideals and our safety are compromised when politicians provide permission for bigotry.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.